from Africa in Transition

Is South African Education Improving?

January 09, 2014

Blog Post

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

South Africa


Politics and Government

Aging, Youth Bulges, and Population

Conventional wisdom states that education in South Africa is failing to prepare learners for entry into the modern economy. On the one hand, South African employers complain about the lack of qualified job applicants, while on the other youth unemployment can be as high as 70 percent in certain neighborhoods. There would appear to be a direct relationship between very high unemployment levels and the persistence of poverty among about half of the population. It may be surmised that there is a relationship between high unemployment, persistent poverty, and very high crime rates. (South Africa’s murder rate is approximately six times that of the United States.)

What to do about education–especially primary education in the rural areas and the townships–is the focus of lively debate in South Africa. This week, the minister of Basic Education announced an improved matric pass rate for this year–the number of South African students who have graduated from high school. This is the fifth consecutive year that the matric pass rate has increased. A total of 78.2 percent of students passed matric this year. Some commentators take this as evidence that education is in fact improving in South Africa. Others, however, argue that the matric pass rate is a poor indication of educational quality, while others still argue that far from an indication of improving education quality, the system is failing its learners while serving as a political back-slapping strategy; crucial in an election year.

The ongoing woes of the education system do not appear rooted in money. South Africa devotes almost a quarter of its national budget to education. Instead, conventional wisdom lays the blame for poor performance of South African learners with a range of issues from an under-developed culture of learning to very poor quality teaching. There is also an important political dimension. The powerful South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) is among the largest elements in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which with the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) is part of the tripartite alliance that governs the country. SACP and COSATU do not contest under their own names for seats in parliament; they run under the auspices of the ANC. The argument is that SADTU is highly resistant to change.

What to do about South African education and whether it is improving or not, is by no means simple. If it were, comprehensive reforms would have been introduced a long time ago, there being no lack of political will or concern for education reform among the politically influential in South Africa.

George Ward, a former U.S. ambassador to Namibia, now at the Institute for Defense Analyses, has just published an excellent overview of the relationship between education, unemployment, and poverty. He includes useful links to recent sources.